Book Review: Black Bird of the Gallows by Meg Kassel
Cadence, Pennsylvania used to be a mining town. The economy never fully recovered from the mines closing down, but the town survived. But there are some disturbing signs. There’s an unseasonably high number of crows for February, and an even more unseasonable number of unusually aggressive bees.
Angelina “Angie” Dovage doesn’t pay too much attention to that at first. She’s trying to survive her last year of high school, live down her past life with her drug-addicted mother, keep her identity as Sparo (the town’s hottest DJ) secret from her classmates, and checking out the hot new boy who just moved in next door. The tall, dark, brooding boy who has a mysterious past.
This is a young adult paranormal romance, so Reece Fernandez turns out to be a supernatural being with strange powers, and also a strong attraction to Angie. And of course he feels the need to “protect” her by not telling her relevant information until much later than it would have been useful.
There’s also Rafette, a much less pleasant supernatural being who has taken an interest in Angie, and knows way too much about her mother for his appearance in Cadence to be a coincidence. Unlike the crow-based Harbingers, Beekeepers can’t be killed–or at least that’s what everyone’s been told.
On the more normal high school drama side of things, there’s Angie’s musical friends Daniel “Deno” Steinway and Lacey Taggert, and mean girl Kiera Shaw. Deno still seems to carry a bit of a torch for Angie, and is oblivious to Lacey’s interest in himself. Kiera seems intent on bringing up Angie’s supposedly sordid past at every opportunity.
Things get progressively worse in Cadence as increasing numbers of people go mad, and the real reason the Harbingers are in town approaches.
At my current age, I sympathize more with Angie’s well-meaning but out of the loop father when it comes to her apparent relationship with Reece. The story fudges a bit on the “much older guy falls in love with a teenage girl” thing, but it still comes off icky.
Thankfully, Angie’s reasonably competent on her own; it’s only supernatural problems that she needs a supernatural rescuer for.
A third kind of supernatural being comes into the plot briefly, creating a sequel hook. (Yes, of course this is a series.)
Overall…I’m not the audience for this book. It seems competently written, and I didn’t actively hate any of the characters, but they didn’t engage me either. It will probably work much better for teenagers, and more likely artsy young women.
Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran
Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year. Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror. That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy. Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.
Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste. In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements. She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.
This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem. Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield. Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls. Will history repeat?
The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee. A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before. They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them. In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how targeted the weapon.
Some stories I particularly liked:
“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them. This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.
“Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions. The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to. She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.
“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules. Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night. So simple. But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery. Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.
One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess. There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story. There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.
Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented. If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.
Book Review: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
Note: This review will contain SPOILERS for the first three volumes in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. If you have not read those, you may want to consult my reviews of those books instead.
While war still ravages the land of Westeros, for the moment it is contained to a handful of trouble spots. In King’s Landing, King Tommen is the puppet of his mother, Queen Cersei as she schemes to gain complete power over the realm. In sunny Dorne, daughters seek vengeance. In the Riverlands, the last castles are yet to be taken, and outlaws and soldiers alike despoil what little remains of the smallfolk. In the Vale, there is no war, but their lord’s castle, the Eyrie, feels the effects of winter early. Across the Narrow Sea in Braavos, a girl has lost much and stands to lose more. On the other side of Westeros, the Iron Islands must choose a new leader. And in Oldtown, there are sinister doings at the Citadel of the Maesters.
And everywhere, the crows are feasting on carrion.
When Mr. Martin realized that this book was getting way too long, he could have taken the Wheel of Time route and split the story in half by time. But that would mean checking in with about thirty viewpoint characters, most of whom would accomplish relatively little in that timespan. Instead, he chose to split this and the next volume, A Dance with Dragons, up by location.
The good news is that this allows the characters that do appear to advance the plotlines considerably. The bad news is that if your favorite characters were in the other territories, you won’t see them until the next book. And back in the day, that would be another five years!
There are a bunch of new viewpoint characters, and Mr. Martin gets “cute” with the chapter headings, naming them “The Soiled Knight” or “The Kraken’s Daughter” instead of the character’s name. He even uses different nicknames for different chapters!
With their numbers dwindling and scattered, the Stark family is down to two viewpoint characters. Sansa Stark is now going by “Alayne Stone”, supposed daughter of the cunning Littlefinger. With the death of her aunt Lysa and her cousin Robert being less than mentally sound, Littlefinger has free reign as the Lord Protector. This does not make him or Alayne loved by the people of the Vale, however.
Arya Stark has arrived in Braavos, the city of secrets, and seeks shelter in the temple of the Many-Faced God. She is learning to serve death, but can she make the final sacrifice of her own identity?
Brienne of Tarth goes back to the Riverlands in search of Sansa. What she finds instead is outlaws, many of whom have a grudge against her specifically. Her sections have some of the best writing in the book.
Samwell Tarly is sent south from the Wall to Oldtown to learn maester skills that the Night Watch desperately needs…and for more secretive purposes. He has an encounter with Arya during a stayover in Braavos, though they don’t realize at the time how they’re connected.
Jaime Lannister quarrels with his sister Cersei and is relatively happy to get the order to end the siege at Riverrun. He’s still trying to adjust to the loss of his hand, and attempts to navigate the contradictory oaths he’s taken. Jaime may have no honor as far as most other people are concerned, but he wants to keep what honor he has.
Queen Cersei becomes a viewpoint character for the first time, and we see how the patriarchal nature of Westeros society has contributed to her personality. If she’d been properly trained in leadership and statecraft from the beginning, things would be better. But instead she’s always been told her job is to pump out babies, and barred from anything but backstairs scheming. And scheming is not the only thing needed to run a country. Possibly worse, a certain prophecy has made her essentially the Wicked Queen from Snow White, right down to dwarfs thwarting her will. It’s no surprise when her own plots backfire, leaving Cersei in a nearly inescapable bind.
(Indeed, one of the minor subthemes here is “The Patriarchy ruins everything, even for patriarchs.”)
Over in the Iron Islands, we see things from the viewpoints of Asha Greyjoy, daughter of the late King Balon and sister to Theon (who does not appear in this book but is probably still alive); her uncle Aeron, a fanatical priest of the Drowned God, and her uncle Victarion, leader of the Iron Fleet. None of them like the other uncle Euron Crow’s Eye, who is just outright evil, but at the Kingsmoot Euron reveals a plan to conquer Westeros that most of the Ironmen like. And with Westeros in the shape it’s in, now is definitely the time to attack.
Asha is the smartest of the lot, but her uncles don’t listen to her because she’s a woman.
Down in Dorne, the viewpoint characters are Areoh Hotah, captain of Prince Doran’s guards; Arianne Martel, Doran’s daughter and heir; and Arys Oakheart, a knight of the Kingsguard who is protecting Princess Myrcella Baratheon.
Under Dornish law, Myrcella would have precedence over her younger brother Tommen for the Iron Throne. Arianne, who is worried that her father is scheming to have her put aside in favor of her own brother to match mainstream Westeros culture, comes up with a plan to crown Myrcella queen and stir up war with the Lannisters. Certain facts have been hidden from Arianne, so her plan has disastrous consequences.
Lots of plot twists and interesting developments this time, but I sorely missed favorite characters. There are maps at the front, and an ever-growing character guide in the back.
As always, there’s tons of violence, talk of rape, and strong language. Torture is on-page this volume, and worse implied.
Because of the largely-new cast, this volume reads differently than the earlier ones The reader should probably have the next volume ready by the time they finish this one, as I am told they read better as a set.
My genes are in mice, and not in the banal way that Man’s old genes are in the Beasts.
Max Ritvo was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age sixteen. Aggressive treatment put him into remission for some years, but the Ewing’s sarcoma came back during his senior year at Yale. During this time, he became a noted poet; Tom Waits was a big fan, I am told. Mr. Ritvo lived long enough to see advance copies of this book. but passed in August of 2016.
Mr. Ritvo’s cancer and his impending death are pervasive themes in his poetry, but are not the only things he writes about. He speaks of his love for his wife (sometimes in disturbing imagery), and moments of joy he has had.
This Milkweed Editions volume is handsome; the cover takes from his poem “Holding a Freshwater Fish in a Pail Above the Sea.” It’s a fine tribute to the author, and would look good on your shelf.
However, all the poems in the book are the modern poetry I don’t “get.” I honestly can’t tell if these are good or bad, and don’t feel any emotional connection to the work. Thus I cannot recommend this book to the casual reader; you will need to consult the opinions of people who actually know what they are talking about.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in a giveaway; no other compensation was offered or requested.
Update: here’s a video of Mr. Ritvo reading his work.
Book Review: The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
Kay and Gerda are best friends who live in adjacent garrets, and often visit each other across the roof, where their parents have installed flower boxes with rosebushes. They are like brother and sister, and very happy together until one day Kay’s personality changes. He has been pierced in heart and eye by shards of the Devil’s distorting mirror, so now Kai only sees the flaws and ugliness of people, and his heart is slowly turning to ice.
In mid-winter, Kay recklessly goes sledding without Gerda or any other companion, and winds up hitching his sled to the sleigh of the Snow Queen. As it happens, the queen of all snow has seen Kay before, and decides to keep him, kissing away his memory of family and friends. Everyone else is convinced that Kay has frozen to death or drowned in the river, but Gerda is not so sure. When the weather thaws, Gerda goes looking for Kay, having many adventures along the way.
This is one of the many fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), one of Denmark’s most famous authors. First printed in 1844, it’s also one of his longest fantasy works (but still only about forty pages without illustrations) and much acclaimed. It’s been adapted many times, and has inspired other works such as the movie Frozen.
Since this is a public domain story, easily downloadable for free from Project Gutenberg, or available at your local library in the children’s section, the main reasons to look at this particular edition are the fresh translation by Jean Hersholt and illustrations by Finnish-heritage artist Sanna Annukka. The language flows well (though parents will want to read it with their children the first go-round to explain some of the words.) The illustrations are striking, and perhaps a little frightening in places (this would be a good time to introduce young readers to the variety of Scandinavian art.) The art is very stylized, which works well for the magical beings involved in the story.
The Snow Queen is very much steeped in Scandinavian Christian folklore, from the hobgoblin who is in fact the Devil and his cruel mirror, to Gerda’s prayers bringing angels to defend her in time of need. It’s stated that Gerda’s simple faith and innocence give her power–it never occurs to her that it’s odd to be able to speak to flowers (but not get much out of the exchange) or that a robber girl will suddenly choose to help her on her quest rather than kill her.
And this tale is surprising rich in female characters: the wise Grandmother, alien Snow Queen, selfish Flower Witch, clever Princess and wild Robber Girl, as well as sweet Gerda herself. Some of these characters would make good stories with their own adventures. It’s notable that there is no confrontation with the Snow Queen at the end–she’s away on a business trip when Gerda arrives to free Kay. Perhaps this is for the best, as someone must see that snow gets where it belongs.
One aspect that may be troubling for parents is that after Kay is affected by the distorting mirror, he only finds beauty in mathematics, logic and symmetry. He’s noted for being able to do arithmetic in his head–with fractions!
The book has sturdy covers and thick pages, so should survive frequent re-reading by youngsters well. Recommended to families that don’t already have a copy of this classic tale, and people who like this style of art.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was requested or offered.
And now, let’s have the trailer of a Finnish movie adaptation!
Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years. Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within. Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.
The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.) It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again. After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists. They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies. Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.
Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets. Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest. Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.
Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks. He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department. It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in the process. For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)
There are time travel shenanigans involved, and one character seems determined to produce a specific future. The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board. The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.
A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims. There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”
Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends. The cliffhanger is neat: “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips. And kissed him.”
“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova. He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot. (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.) As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.
“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.) A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human. Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.
The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch. While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for. A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.
The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day. (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.) Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.
The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.
“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel. A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans. They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.” Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.
All that is background. A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky. There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell. Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.
It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story. It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while. Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)
Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later. (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)
“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life. Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens. Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet. Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants? A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.
“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece. It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop. A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain. The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.
Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet. But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes. He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.
Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries. Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.
The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted. It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)
John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.
There are two science fact articles. “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses. “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained. Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.
I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.
Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.